To mark the four hundredth anniversary next year of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope in 1609, the IAU has designated 2009 “The International Year of Astronomy” (IYA2009): which is likely to be the trigger for a glut of telescope history-themed books (probably no bad thing, in my opinion). But what happened before 1609?

I recently mentioned here “the lost 150 years”, that awkward pause between the widespread availability of both convex and concave lenses (circa 1450) and the appearance of microscopes (circa 1590) and telescopes (circa 1600). Such compound optical devices could have been invented by anyone during that period, and the best-documented pre-1600 telescopic claim so far seems to be from Thomas Digges (John Gribbin discusses this in one of his books). But could yet other inventors (such as possibly the author of the Voynich Manuscript) have pre-dated Digges, Janssen and co?

There were plenty of alchemical-style claims to that effect, most notably from H. C. Agrippa, who wrote in his “Occult Philosophy” that “And I knew how to make by them wonderful things, in which any one might see whatsoever he pleased at a long distance” (Book II, Chapter 23) . However, there was (in this case) apparently nothing of real substance behind his bluster.

All the same, I asked on the HASTRO-L mailing list if there were any up-to-the-minute books on this far-too-quiet period, and was delighted to learn (via Peter Abrahams) of a book that is just coming out from Harvard University Press: “Galileo’s Glassworks, The Telescope and the Mirror” (2008), by Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, who specialises in the study of early modern scientific literature. Though the publisher’s blurb seems to make her book sound over-focused on the minutiae of Galileo’s rhetoric, I’m assured that its first half does actually take in the wider pre-1609 field of view (which is precisely what I was most interested in).

The release date for Glassworks is either January 2008 or 28th February 2008 (depending on who you ask): there are already some copies for sale in the US, but it’s only pre-ordering in the UK at the moment. I’ll review it here when my copy arrives (counting the days)…

From the apparent tsunami of Voynich fiction about to crash down on our literary shores over the next year, it might seem that the VMs had never previously appeared in a novel. Yet this is not exactly true…

For example, “Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone” (Max McCoy, Bantam Books, 1995) is based entirely around the Voynich Manuscript: set in March 1933, a mad scholar called Sarducci has stolen the VMs (which is actually a map), and so Indy chases him through Mussolini’s fascist Italy all the way to an amazing alchemical crypt in the desert… From what I’ve read of this book, it actually seems to be a pleasantly pulpy read, very much in tune with the actual VMs, and with a refreshing lack of power-mad Jesuit priests. However, I should warn you that it will be re-released on 29th April 2008, presumably to try to ride the whole 2008 Voy-niche publishing wave. *sigh*

Another pair of VMs-themed books came to my attention via the Bellairsia blog, which is devoted to books by the writer John Anthony Bellairs. His most famous novel was “The Face in the Frost” (1969), a fantasy novel in which Prospero and Roger Bacon fight against a mysterious grimoire that sounds not at all dissimilar to the VMs. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, his estate commissioned author Brad Strickland to complete and continue Bellairs’ various series: and it is in one of these that protagonist Johnny Dixon faces “The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost” (1999), which features the VMs in a starring role.

Connections between J.R.R.Tolkien and the VMs have been suggested in the past. According to Voynich mailing list member Anthony, Tolkien did indeed own a copy of at least one page of the VMs, which may have played a small part in influencing his choice of the fantasy scripts in his books. As I recall, there were a number of people in Tolkien’s Oxford circle that had an interest in early modern scientific manuscripts, so this does seem a perfectly sensible idea.

Many people have also wondered about the relationship between H.P.Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and the Voynich Manuscript: Colin Wilson based a short story called “The Return of the Lloigor” around this, and returned to the theme at the end of his novel “The Philosopher’s Stone”.

All the same, this modest pile of Voynich fiction looks set to triple in height this year… interesting times!


Here’s a nice piece of historical cryptography I hope you’ll appreciate: a piece of “pigpen ciphertext” engraved on a 1792 New York gravestone, on Flickr. But before you click anywhere, try and decode it for yourself from the transcription I’ve put above!

Hint: the single-dot box appears four times, and is (just as you’d expect) a vowel. 🙂

If you want to know more, the article mentioned on the page was from the Meyer Berger column on page 24 of the New York Times, January 2nd 1957, and is in the paper’s online archive: they charge non-subscribers $3.95 for a PDF, if you happen to be reaaaaaaally interested. But maybe this is a sensible place to stop…

Two big news stories today, both of them far more amazing than fiction…

Firstly, a story about a Nazi cipher, allegedly by Martin Bormann detailing the location of a cache of gold and diamonds hidden in 1945. Dutch journalist Karl Hammer has written a book called De tranen van de wolf (The Tears of the Wolf), published by Elmar, which is basically a dossier of his notes. Much copied in the blogs, but here’s the source page (with pictures of the so-called “runic” cipher hidden in the rests in a piece of sheet music, as well as a series of numerals at the bottom which is doubtless discussed in the book). 224 pages, 17.50 euros here.

And secondly, a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about a cache of microfilms of early copies of the Qur’an being unearthed. For decades it was thought that they had been destroyed in the bombing of the Bavarian Academy of Science (which was housed in a former Jesuit college in Munich) in 1944, but the truth turns out to be much more subtle and complex.

It’s one of those strange things: if a novelist had used either of these two stories for their plots, he/she would probably be ridiculed for over-egging their cake, for going too far. I mean, Nazis treasure and a cipher hidden in music, or Nazis and the lost origins of Islam, really?

Incidentally, I’ve mentioned how my stomach turns when I see the word “Jesuit” pop up in Voynich-themed novels, and – as a historical literary commentary on the penny dreadful Jesuit cliche – that’s perfectly OK. But as with every rule of thumb, there is bound to be an exception, and perhaps Enrique Joven’s book is that: now that I found a better description of it, I can see that the Jesuit connection he appropriates is probably based on real history (I’m guessing the movement around Europe of the various Jesuit trunks containing the VMs), and so for a surprising change his Jesuit plot connection there actually makes good sense.

But this is really not to endorse every other Jesuit/VMs so-called plot “twist” out there: repeat after me, “it almost certainly predates the Jesuit Order, which was founded in 1534“… *sigh*

After my recent (and unexpectedly extended) foray into Voynich-themed novels, I thought it would be a good idea to get back to proper manuscript research.

f112r-star-para1One small feature I’ve been mulling over is the “starred paragraphs” in Quire 20, the final gathering in the VMs (the one which famously ends with the “michiton oladabas” page). I posted about this section not long ago, discussing Vladimir Sazonov’s suggestion that it might originally have formed some kind of 365-paragraph calendar. But what I’m thinking about here is the possibility that the “tailed stars” used to mark the start of each paragraph here were actually comets, chosen on the basis of a Latin pun.

Back circa 1500, the named structures used for written works were often slightly different from now. What we moderns would call a chapter or part, would typically have been called a book: while a modern subsection (a block of continuous text with a descriptive header) would typically have been called a chapter, or capitulum (literally “diminutive caput“, “little head”). Ironically, the short punchy chapters in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” are closer in spirit to this medieval world of text than most other modern books.

What we therefore see in Quire 20 is what I think would have been understood in context to be not so much a series of paragraphs, but a series of “chapters” within a “book”. With this in mind, might those little shapes that have usually been called the “stars” or “tailed stars” be instead iconic comets?

Our word “comet” originally came from the Latin cometes, which itself was a loan-word from the Greek kometes, “wearing long hair” (it’s in Aristotle). Similarly, the Latin term crinis means hair, or tail of a comet, or rays of sun: and so a comet may be called a stella crinita, a ‘hairy star’ (yes, really!)

So, when I now look at the starred paragraphs, I do think that the “stars” there are very probably comets comprised of a little head (capitulum) and a deliberately hair-like tail. This kind of punning visual / Latin iconographic word-play would be consistent with the view of the VMs as a high-culture cipher: but perhaps seems a little too ornate or too conceptually ‘fancy’ for a mere hoax.

Modern astrologers (even such mainstream ones as Jonathan Cainer) are still sent into a tailspin (if you’ll forgive the pun) by comets, seeing in them omens for, well, all sorts of things, such as the death of Benazir Bhutto, etc: which is, of course, no different to ancient, medieval and Renaissance astrologers alike, for whom comets had the power to invite speculation, wonder, and fear.

But for the VMs, where should this research thread go next? As far as art history goes, Giotto famously depicted the 1301 appearance of Halley’s Comet in his Adoration of the Magi: and if you subscribe to a likely Quattrocento origin for the manuscript (as I do), I would guess that there is a lot more to find in Roberta Olson’s (2000) “The Florentine Tondo” (ISBN10: 019817425X, ISBN13: 9780198174257, £85) – pricy (but supposedly fascinating). I would also suggest “Cometary theory in Fifteenth Century Europe” (Kluwer, 1985, also £80 or so) by Jane L. Jervis, and Lynn Thorndike’s (1958) “Some tracts on Comets 1456-1500” (in Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 11 (1958) pp.225-260), none of which I’ve seen myself but perhaps will one day soon (if I spend a day at the BL, or win the lottery). I’ve also read that Galileo discussed (in his “Il Saggiatore“) the three comets that were seen in 1417: and so there was presumably much debate on this at the time.

I don’t know: it seems possibly too lightweight an issue to devote a great deal of time to. And yet there is much in the VMs that points to astronomical and astrological thinking – enough that I can empathize with Enrique Joven’s novel “Castle in the Stars“, where the VMs is imagined as being part of that general tradition (No! Enough with the novels, already!). Maybe there is enough there after all…

Sorry for posting like an overexcited puppy, but my Voynich book‘s first citation is surely worthy to me of a minor celebration: less than a backflip, but more than a raised eyebrow.

The just-published (January 2008) Cryptologia article where it is mentioned is “Cicco Simonetta’s Cipher-Breaking Rules“, by Augusto Buonafalce, who so generously reviewed my book in the same journal last year. It’s a nice little piece to introduce cryptologers and cryptography historians to Cicco Simonetta [there’s a nice Italian page on him here], with the added bonus of a good translation of his “regulae” (rules): it even has a black and white reproduction of a painting of Cicco I was not previously aware of.

Augusto rightly dismisses the thought of a powerful Milanese statesman “engaging in the encryption of the Voynich manuscript“: but that’s not really a summary of my book’s argument. What I actually argue is that the presence of the “4o” token in a good number of mid-Quattrocento Northern Italian cipher alphabets (including the Voynich Manuscript) points to a continuity of cipher thinking, one which seemed to travel around with the Sforza miltary caravan… just as Cicco Simonetta did from an early age.

To be precise, I don’t claim that Cicco wrote the VMs, or even designed its cipher alphabet. Far from it: rather, that its “4o” token points to a deep-rooted connection between its cipher-system and the ciphers constructed and used by the Milanese Chancellery. My book conjectures that this “4o” ‘verbose cipher’ trick may have been disclosed in the 1465 meeting between Antonio Averlino and Cicco Simonetta, at which the former placed his outstanding Milanese affairs in the hands of the latter before leaving Milan forever. But in the world of tenuous Voynichological hypotheses, this is one at least that did actually happen! 🙂

For all its merits, it would be wrong to characterize Augusto’s Cryptologia article as being the final word in the cryptographic history debate over Cicco Simonetta’s Regulae: the conclusions I (and others) draw from the available data are quite different, and (in the absence of more conclusive evidence) we can politely agree to differ – and that’s OK.

As a side-note here, when I cited (on my p.182) a 1970 article on Cicco’s Regulae, I contacted its very-much-still-alive author (Walter Hoeflechner) to see if anyone else in the intervening 36 years had shown an interest – and only the ubiquitous David Kahn had. From that, it’s easy to see that the discussion of the intriguing intersection between cryptography and politics offered by Simonetta is very much out of fashion: which is a bit of a shame.

And therefore, I think it would be very nice if Augusto’s article proved instead to be the first word in a rather more modern debate over the Regulae: the new generation of historians and researchers who have taken an interest in seeing what the Sforza-era bureaucratic archives have to tell us would almost certainly be bound to find new angles and approaches, and might well carry us all forward in new and interesting directions.

Finally… for me, what is nicest about Augusto’s citation is that it is one of those rarest of hen’s teeth: a Voynich-related book or paper getting cited outside of the Voynich literature. It is far too early to say that this marks the point where the VMs goes fully mainstream… but it’s a start, surely?

The proliferation of Voynich Manuscript-themed novels has gone way beyond being merely a vague pattern in my peripheral vision: it’s starting to become a bit of a plague.

Here’s another book, this time from Bilbao-based first-time novelist Iñaki Uriarte: published by Verbigracia in 2007, it’s called “La Piedra Filosofal” (The Philosopher’s Stone, if you hadn’t guessed), and weaves the Voynich Manuscript in with the Philosopher’s Stone and quantum physics. It is 394 pages long, has the plant from f2v and the top-left nymph from f82v on the cover, and there’s a sizeable (83-page!) extract here to whet your appetite. I can’t see an ISBN for it, and none of the book sites I looked at had a copy (even Amazon!), but if you fancy it you can buy it for 18 euros directly from the publisher via PayPal. Which is nice.

And there is yet another Spanish book (mentioned in passing by Enrique Joven) called “El quinto mandamiento” (The Fifth Commandment, which is thou shalt not kill” [of course]), by Eric Frattini, published by Espasa-Calpe, ISBN13 978-84-670-2442-5. It seems fairly standard mystery thriller fare, with an elderly professor uncovering the secrets of the VMs, while a conspiratorial circle of eight (led by a corrupt cardinal) tracks down and murders everyone who the professor has talked to. There’s a bit of f67r1 Photoshopped onto the cover, along with the Florence Duomo, but unless I’m really badly mistaken it only seems to engage with the VMs in a very superficial way. 360 pages, 19.90 euros. You can read a machine translation of the first chapter here (click on the 2 3 4 5 .. numbers at the bottom). But Lord, spare me from having to read about any more evil Jesuit priests!

So… we have:-

  • Enrique Joven’s forthcoming “Castle of the Stars
  • Iñaki Uriarte’s “La Piedra Filosofal
  • Eric Frattini’s “El quinto mandamiento
  • Thierry Maugenest’s “Manuscript MS408
  • Michael Cordy’s forthcoming “Garden of God
  • Richard D. Weber’s “The Voynich Covenant
  • Andrea Peters’ “I’m Sorry… Love Anne
  • William Michael Campbell’s “The Voynich Solution

…and even as I type there are doubtless 10-20 more writers out there feverishly word-pureeing their Dan Brown-esque Voynich-based mystery capers, with nearly all of them struggling to find exciting new synonyms for the word “evil” to put before the word “Jesuit”. 😮

In some ways, this is all very flattering, for it surely means that our overall Voynichological “research programme” (for want of a better phrase) over the last few years has blossomed in a broad cultural awareness of the manuscript, an inky sea of ideas into which novelists feel free to dip their fountain pens. However, I think it’s also fair to say that most of these books do not engage with the VMs in a very substantial way, which – given all the work that we’ve done – is a bit sad. So on balance, I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad, which of the two emotions is the stronger… you’ll have to make your own judgment on that, I’m afraid!

The French Voynich mailing list I half-remembered and mentioned before turned out to be an online discussion forum on François Almaleh’s website (his main Voynich site is here, which I guess is the skeleton of the Voynich book he was writing back in 2003). However, this died in 2004: you can see a copy in the Wayback Machine here. And therefore I don’t think there is an active French Voynich mailing list at the moment, which is a shame after all the publicity gained there by the launch of the [near-]facsimile edition of the VMs “Le Code Voynich“. You can even see this in the Google Trends curve for “Voynich”: the big spike in the middle was the book release, and France remains at the top of the list of countries Googling for “Voynich”.

Some people have posted bilingual Voynich websites: but even if your French is excellent (as Dennis Stallings’ plainly is), this is a hard path to take and stick to, and one that removes a lot of the spontaneity of posting and updating web-pages.

Perhaps the simplest modern way to get ideas across to non-native-language readers would be to add a [Translate this page] button to your blog (as I’ve just done). Recently, I was even pleasantly surprised by the quality of Google’s automatic translation from Chinese into English (though admittedly I was expecting it to come out like a mangled shopping list): and doubtless this will keep being improved. But given that quality issues remain, I’d really like to be able to embed translation hints in my text, particularly so that I can continue to post in my polyglot oral tongue stylee: but I somehow doubt that this is on Blogger’s radar. I’m probably too early to this ball: but in 10 years’ time, who knows…?

PS: I think a link to this blog was posted to the Yahoo mailing list: a big Guten Tag to you all there!

Two interesting Voynich news stories…

Firstly, I’ve had a blog comment and some emails from a pleasantly surprised Enrique Joven, author of “El castello de las estrellas” (his blog is here): his big news is the book has been picked up by HarperCollins US, and is due for publication in September 2008 under the title “The castle of the stars“. According to one Internet site, Enrique received a low six-figure advance (“$100,000 to $300,000). I’m very much looking forward to it! 🙂

Secondly, another Voynich novel is on its way… and it could well be a big one.Its author is Michael Cordy, writer of the international bestsellers “The Messiah Code“, “The Lucifer Code“, “Crime Zero“, and “The Venus Conspiracy“. His next book (ISBN10 055215699X, ISBN13 9780552156998, AKA “Untitled Michael Cordy“) is due for hardback release in “January 2008” from Transworld Publishers. The original title was “The Garden Of God“, meaning Eden, though (curiously enough) it is also what “Baghdad” originally meant. What are the odds Transworld end up giving it the title “The Eden Code” instead?

The synopsis of the Michael Cordy book is here: basically, the main character’s beautiful wife Lauren decodes the Voynich Manuscript, but ends up in a coma after someone tries to steal her translation, and so the main character ends up racing against a fanatical priest to reach the mythical “Jardin del Dios”…

I’m already getting a bit sick of these Jesuits and mysterious meddling priests (particularly as the Jesuit order didn’t start up until many decades after the VMs was probably written), but hey – novelists have to start somewhere, right? [Also: I couldn’t help but be reminded not a little of Thierry Maugenest’s 2005 novel “Manuscrit MS 408“, where two academics decoding the Voynich mysteriously fall into a coma, setting the story in motion…]

Whatever you think of Voynich novels, these are two potentially big novels with our favourite manuscript in a starring role, both due for release by Serie A mega-publishers this year. Perhaps I’m misreading the tea-leaves, but I do get the overwhelming feeling from this that 2008 is somehow destined to be the “Year of the Voynich” – not necessarily the year when it gets solved, but the year when it goes fully mainstream.

As a handy (but inevitably bad) generalization, there are two kinds of Voynich researchers out there: (a) social ones (who do it in a crowd) and (b) anti-social ones (who do it alone). Broadly speaking, I’m now a (b) having first done a six-year stretch as an (a): but some people (like my old friend GC, who’s like my Voynichological twin brother, though without the goatee… hmmm…) manage to stay (b) with occasional flashes of (a), despite all the provocation they (inevitably?) receive online.

But when you add things like blogs to the mix, this cosy categorization starts to fall apart. Because I blog about what I’m thinking about, does that make me a kind of passive-aggressive (a), or perhaps a falsely socialized (b)? Are blogs actually social, or merely a kind of unconscious, self-aggrandizing auto-journalism? Answers on an e-postcard (to someone else), please.

Regardless, plenty of people put out their Voynich-related outsider viewpoints in varied ways: here are some you may have missed (but which my seine net picked up). Be grateful I only kept the good stuff! 🙂

(1) Richard Santa Coloma has posted up a set of long-ish posts by GC here: intriguingly, GC (who for years has winced at the thought of anything apart from a 16th century origin, largely because of Leonell Strong’s decryption / Askham attribution) is now mellowing towards the 15th century (though quite how the two centuries blend together is still a little wobbly).

Incidentally, the possibility (as proposed by Richard Santa Coloma) of Cornelius Drebbel-era (i.e. circa 1600) authorship for the Voynich remains interesting, though hard to square with the manuscript’s 15th century art history. But perhaps the truth will turn out to be far more magnificent. Telescope histories (such as this excellent one from the Galileo Project) will tell you that the glass in Venice produced around 1450 was being ground by Florentines (and others) into both convex and concave lenses for spectacles / bericles, and so anyone with access to both could have made telescopes and microscopes. Yet the first properly documented examples of each instrument appear 140+ years later. What is curious is that, according to the Galileo Project:

  • “In the literature of white magic, so popular in the sixteenth century, there are several tantalizing references to devices that would allow one to see one’s enemies or count coins from a great distance. But these allusions were cast in obscure language and were accompanied by fantastic claims; the telescope, when it came, was a very humble and simple device.” ( para 4)

Could it be that various individuals invented and reinvented the microscope and telescope multiple times in that century-and-a-half gap? If you view the Voynich Manuscript’s quires 19 and 17 (in that order), you will see what looks for all the world like a lab notebook detailing the development of a sequence of microscopes (and possibly telescopes), seguing into speculative optical instruments. If only Richard Santa Coloma “dropped the Drebbel”, he might find a far more amazing story waiting to be uncovered…

(2) Sean B. Palmer has posted some interesting pages here (on “Michitonese”) and here (on the zodiac month names), though in both cases chasing behind work I had done six or so months previously. A nice resource he uses which I wasn’t aware of: the Xerox XRCE Language Guesser. You feed it 5 sentences of text, and it compares them with 47 languages (though doubtless a longer list in the commercial version) to determine the closest match. Kewl! (i.e. ‘fascinating technology but not actually very useful’).

(3) One of the quintessential twentieth century outsiders was Terence McKenna: though I can’t walk in his footsteps (largely because I’m allergic to mushrooms), it is hard not to feel some kind of admiration for his endless tilting against those powerful windmills who continue to blow us around. There’s an audio archive of his work here, with a long (but often terribly wrong, I’m sorry to say) discussion of the Voynich Manuscript from 1983 here

In it, he namechecks Mary D’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” (“this is what your tax dollars are being used for“), and notes that the VMs’ internal structuring probably indicates meaningful content However, McKenna understands that it’s not a Trithemius-derived code or cipher and suggests it should be compared by computer with the work of John Dee (which Leonell Strong also flagged), even though he’s very much into Dee-Kelley hoax hypotheses. Modern cryptographers may well be blind to the particular “weird quirky way” in which it was encoded/enciphered, he says: alternatively, “a chemical attack should be mounted” on the manuscript’s plants. Oh, and it’s “aaaaahbviously sixteenth century“. Around 20 minutes in, lots of Yatesian stuff gets namechecked [if you like that kind of thing]. At the time, McKenna was “advising a group of people in Santa Cruz” (almost certainly via Ralph Abraham, I guess) in their research into the VMs, “one of the great oddities of human thought“.

The problem with McKenna’s Voynichological heritage is his subsequent endorsement of Leo Levitov’s problematic 1987 Cathar decryption (about 24mins in, read from McKenna’s “Archaic Revival”), which now looks rather foolish. Oh well! By the way, the mp3 ends with about 10 minutes of frog croaking, which may or may not be meaningful (you choose). 🙂